Company puts energy into cleaning up battery market

| Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012

An environmentally friendly battery with potential to change the way the world stores electricity is powering a startup company in Lawrenceville.

"There's a real market opportunity for this. Energy could be stored to be used at peak demand times. This is going to be a trillion-dollar market," said Ted Wiley, vice president for business and market development at Aquion Energy Inc.

Most batteries have dirty or even toxic downsides: Lithium ion batteries used in cell phones and computers are highly flammable; lead acid car batteries and nickel-metal hydride -- or NiMH -- batteries that power hybrid vehicles, contain toxic materials. Less-hazardous alkaline batteries cannot be recharged.

Aquion, a fast-growing company, says its clunky sodium ion battery is clean and will boost capacity for energy storage.

"Different batteries have different attributes. Ours are big, heavy and environmentally benign," Jay Whitacre, a professor of material sciences and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University who founded the company two years ago, said of the batteries that look like cinder blocks.

Storing electricity that is generated during times of lower consumption could keep power companies from having to sharply adjust production for peak demand times. But storage of electrical energy has been unreliable and often uneconomic, Whitacre said.

"Electricity is the only mass-produced commodity that does not store well," he said.

Aquion's batteries have potential to store power generated by any source, but the company sees the greatest market in the storage of power generated by wind and sun.

About 1.6 billion people in the world live with no power, and hundreds of millions of others get makeshift power from dirty diesel generators.

"You have to haul the diesel fuel around for all of those generators. Our batteries will become more attractive in developing areas as alternative power, as wind and solar becomes more widespread," Wiley said.

Founded with $5 million in federal stimulus money from the Department of Energy, Aquion in September landed $30 million in equity from three venture capital firms. The Pittsburgh Technology Council last year named the company "Start-up of the Year."

In the final quarter of the year, Aquion added 15 employees to its 50-person roster -- among them, Claude Griffin, 39, of Homewood, who assembles and tests batteries in the company's Lawrenceville plant.

"I know this place is going to make it. It's great," Griffin said. "This is my livelihood, and that gives me enthusiasm and makes me want to work hard."

Griffin ran a cleaning company that was cleaning Aquion's offices when company officials hired him. Aquion plans to hire 30 more people before summer, Wiley said.

Even more significantly, Aquion is seeking a 250,000-square-foot manufacturing space, with an option to later lease more square footage. It is considering four sites across the United States, including the former Sony plant in Westmoreland County, which the Regional Industrial Development Corp. of Southwestern Pennsylvania markets as 2.8 million square feet of factory space on 330 acres.

Public officials are aware of the company's search and are hopeful the company remains here.

"Aquion Energy is one of Pennsylvania's most successful companies, and Pittsburgh is the perfect place for it to expand," Sen. Bob Casey Jr. said in a recent letter to Aquion CEO Scott Pearson. "The region's workers have been critical to Aquion's success, so it's important that our region be able to share in the job growth that comes from that success."

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